This is the sixth in a series of reflections on essays from the book Deaf World, edited by Lois Bragg. All essays in this text are by d/Deaf authors, meaning it is both a primary resource, and thanks to the scope of essays, a historical reader.
In the 1980 essay “Black Signs: Whatever Happened to the Sign for ‘CORNBREAD’,” authors Ernest Hairston and Linwood Smith explain that Black signers are frequently told that other (white) people cannot understand their signing. To explain, Hairston and Smith give examples of words southern Black deaf people use that pertain to farming, meals particular to southern culture, and white people. And yet, they claim, “there is no Black sign language.” Before the Great Migration, people stayed where they were, so sign language dialects were not exchanged or questioned like they were after families relocated to northern cities.
I can’t help but wonder if Jim Crow’s effects at deaf schools were a benefit to Black children. That sounds terrible, so let me explain. While Black deaf children continued to use ASL in school, white children were put into mandated oral programs, and the result was the signs and signing styles changed for white children, which continued with each generation because students often returned to their old schools to become teachers.
In a related concept, I was surprised Hairston and Smith state that Gallaudet has become a place where ASL makes students from different regions sign in a homogenous fashion, i.e., like white people. On the one hand, I can see how reading, writing, speaking, and signing all have a “correct” method that follows the rules. On the other hand, as Dr. Davis at Bethel University emphasizes, we do not judge the intelligence of another person by the way they pronounce words, and that rule, I would think, applies to sign language, too. However, doesn’t that mean that BASL is then the “correct” language, because it didn’t change under the influence of oralism and English? I need to read more of Dr. Joseph Hill’s work on BASL.